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The LGBT Movement Takes Aim at Sochi | The Nation

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The LGBT Movement Takes Aim at Sochi

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Sochi illustration

(Illustration: Ryan Inzana)

It says something about the skittish levels of repression and fear in Russia that nail polish could provoke an international crisis. But that’s what happened at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow last August, when Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro and her teammate, sprinter Moa Hjelmer, were pressured by their nation’s officials to remove the rainbow decorations that adorned their fingernails or risk being sent home. Their nails were meant to be a subtle protest against recent legislation in Russia aimed at criminalizing and marginalizing the LGBT community.

“I couldn’t imagine how big and how much it would mean to people. So I’m so glad that I did it,” said Green Tregaro. “Of course I’ve got some ugly messages too, and that makes it even more worth it.”

The Russian Duma passed a spate of anti-gay laws last year, one of which bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” These laws are so all-encompassing and so vague that they could threaten prison time for anyone who acknowledges the mere existence of LGBT people in any public forum such as the Internet, the classroom or even the Duma itself. These laws were of course signed by President Vladimir Putin, who also, with great fanfare, signed ordinances banning the adoption of Russian children by LGBT couples, as well as by any single person or unmarried couple who reside in a country where marriage equality is on the books. And he still wasn’t finished: Putin approved legislation that doles out two-week jail sentences for any visitor to the country suspected of being gay or sharing this information with others. Recently, the Russian newspaper Gazeta reported that four Dutch tourists were arrested because they were “suspected of promoting homosexual propaganda among children.” The legislation has also led to a spike in violence and harassment aimed at the country’s LGBT community. 

As The Guardian reported, “Activists say the legislation has emboldened rightwing groups who use social media to ‘ambush’ gay people, luring them to meetings and then humiliating them on camera—sometimes pouring urine on them. These groups often act against gay teenagers, several of whom told the Guardian that rising homophobia and vigilante activity force them to lead lives of secrecy.” 

Much of this legislation was passed in the shadows, with little discussion or condemnation on an international scale and very few mentions in the media outside Russia. That changed dramatically when people started to discuss it in the context of the coming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. Debates exploded around the world about whether LGBT athletes and allies would be safe in Russia, about whether countries should boycott in protest or even whether activists should push to ban Russia from its own Winter Games. Among athletes and Olympic federations, the question is even starker: Should athletes just “shut up and play,” or should they use their athletic platforms to protest at the Olympics? This last option is the one that we are most likely to see. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) has already taken a boycott off the table, making the case that “history has proven that the only people…hurt by boycotts are the athletes that have worked their whole lives to participate in these Games.” 

That leaves protest as the only option for athletes. It’s an option with considerable risk. Putin initially outlawed all forms of protest in the two months leading up to the Games. That decree, which has been slightly eased, banned all “gatherings, rallies, demonstrations, marches and pickets” that aren’t a part of Olympic ceremonies—meaning arrest or deportation for anyone who believes that just being who they are should not be seen as “an act of protest.” 

Athletes who want to make a statement should not look to the International Olympic Committee for solidarity. Already, former IOC president Jacques Rogge has made clear that he is siding with Russia, warning athletes to forgo any protest. The new IOC chief, Thomas Bach, the first president to be a former gold medalist, has said only that “we will follow our values and the Olympic Charter.” He was not referring to the part of the charter that forbids discrimination of any kind but to Rule 50, which states, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted.” More bluntly, Gerhard Heiberg, the IOC’s chief marketing officer, called for a plan to squelch demonstrations, saying, “I think this could ruin a lot for all of us.” 

Former Canadian Olympic Committee leader Dick Pound offered the following advice to Olympic officials: “You say to your kids, ‘If you screw around with this, we’ll send you home.’” 

Despite the unprecedented level of advance work to squelch any semblance of freedom of expression, several Olympic participants have already made it clear that they will be defying any ban placed on their ability to be heard. The story of Brian Burke is exemplary. Burke, a grizzled longtime National Hockey League high-level executive, is now director of player personnel for the US Olympic hockey team. He became an LGBT advocate after his own son Brendan came out of the closet. When Brendan died in a car accident at the age of 21, Burke and his other son, Patrick, started the You Can Play Project, aimed at making sports a safe space for LGBT athletes. Burke wrote in Sports Illustrated in September that “Russia has criminalized my ability to be a father and our ability to be a family.” 

He went on to say, “You don’t have to be gay to care about this. You don’t have to have a gay son or daughter to recognize an organized effort by a government to target and destroy a minority group. History has taught us that, left unchecked, this sort of bigotry will only escalate. The rest of the world cannot bear silent witness…. So, Olympians, when you pack your skates, pack a rainbow pin. When you practice your Russian, learn how to say, ‘I am pro-gay.’ When you gather your winter clothes, know that You Can Play will happily outfit any Olympic athlete with complementary You Can Play merchandise. The pressure to do what’s right shouldn’t end with the closing ceremony. The IOC, USOC and each sport’s governing bodies should refuse to stage future international competitions in Russia until these outrageous laws are repealed. That is the boycott I’m calling for.” 

Burke is not alone. The openly gay New Zealand Olympic speed skater Blake Skjellerup joined the Athlete Ally/All Out campaign, which demands the repeal of Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation ahead of the Sochi Games. “I want to stand in solidarity with Athlete Ally and the rest of the LGBT community to show that Russia’s policies are archaic and a violation of human rights everywhere,” he said. “This issue is much bigger than athletics, but if I can help change minds and open doors through the platform of sport, that is what I will do.” 

President Obama, seeing an opportunity to stick a thumb in the eye of the Russian president, has also seized on this moment. In a departure from tradition, the US delegation will not include someone from the president or vice president’s family. Instead, it will include out-and-proud tennis legend Billie Jean King, out-and-proud two-time Olympic hockey player Caitlin Cahow and gold-medal-winning figure skater Brian Boitano, who came out of the closet after being named to the delegation. Considering that King said the LGBT community could use “a John Carlos moment”—a reference to the 1968 Olympic bronze medalist who raised a black-gloved fist for human rights and against racism at the Mexico City Games that year—this will probably not be the most placid of delegations. 

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